Friday, March 15, 2013

Summer Ross' Current Query Critiqued

Okay. Man, it's been a while since I've done one of these. I feel rusty. Please forgive me if this sucks, Summer! Anyway, today we have Summer's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:

Dear Agent,

A steak knife, an old ring, and a crime punishable by death all have one woman in common(--)Ebony Graves. Okay, two nitpicks right away: I would much prefer a colon to an em-dash. Em-dashes are great in manuscripts which are designed to have full support for advanced formatting, but I advise people to stay away from them in queries. If you must have them, use a double hyphen--also, and this is probably just me and my fantasy nerd card, but Ebony Graves sounds a lot like Ebony Greaves. I take it that's your character's name? At twenty-two years old, she lives in a patriarchal society that hangs women accused of crimes? first, and asks questions later. No one cares that she was trying to escape a vicious beating by her own father.

Okay. So even though this is somewhat reversed from your normal query letter's presentation (this is: inciting incident first, then a bit of world, then a bit of character) it mostly works for me. Maybe because it's a really compelling situation. I still need more about Ebony though. We know she's relatively young, we know she suffers under the thumb of a cruel and abusive father, but we don't know much about who she is.

With no other options available, Ebony requests sanctuary from the only powerful woman in town, Lady Charmaine. Her benefactor demands she become the next Jade courtesan if this whole thing is a proper title, I think both words might need to be capitalized. by competing in three challenges to save herself. In doing so, it awakens a rune magic from inside that Ebony didn’t know she had, as well as a desire for Kaige, the handsome stranger lurking throughout the manor.

This whole paragraph is pretty good. It's very specific, which is perfect. It sets the tone of a world that is clearly not our own, and it hints at a society that does not share our customs. I wonder if you might consider another precious stone, though. Jade will always sounds Asian to me.

Otherwise, the rising stakes here are good, and you are building toward a strong but succinct representation of your story.

Pitted against contestants who plot her downfall and a new magic power that threatens her body and soul, Ebony must decide if she can follow through with Lady Charmaine's demands or if her price of freedom lies in death.

And now you lose a lot of what you built in the last paragraph. Where that one is specific, this one is vague. You have to be careful, obviously, because you don't have a lot of room, and you certainly don't need to explain everything, but I do think you've got room enough to get a bit more specific here. What are the three tasks? Or at the very least, what is the first one? Who are the other contestants? Or at the least, who is the worst of them (you don't necessarily have to name the character)?

I am submitting BLOODSTONE for your consideration. It is a romantic fantasy novel. It stands complete at approximately 52,660 53,000 words and is set up for a series has series potential.

I'm very concerned about this. First of all, Fantasy novels are almost never this short. With the world building required, telling a story in a fantasy world almost always takes longer than this. If you check the submission guidelines of most Fantasy imprints (or at least those that accept unagented submissions, like Pyr, you'll see they don't even accept manuscripts under 85,000 words in length). 

Don't let that discourage you though. You could call this a novella. Or you could make Ebony younger and call it Young Adult Fantasy. All I'm saying is you need to know your market, and make your query show that you do.

My published works have been accepted by,, Pill Hill Press, and my local college’s Expression Magazine. I recently graduated with my BA in English from the University of Wyoming.

Thank you for your time,

Summer Ross

In summary, except for the very beginning and the very end, this query is actually quite good. You need to lead with more sense of character, and you need to close with more specifics, but otherwise you're in pretty good shape.

The word count thing isn't really meat-of-the-query type stuff, so I won't harp on it any more, but I do think you should consider changing your character's name (and maybe age). In a Fantasy novel, Ebony Graves just sounds a little too cliche for me.

That's it.

What do you all think?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Agree about the vagueness of the last paragraph. But it's short, so there's room for another line or two. Then it will tie in well with the second one, which rocks.
And yes, that is really short for a fantasy novel.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great query and story, Summer. I'm impressed that you told us so much in so few words. I think if you tweak this like Matt suggested, it'll be fine.

And check on word counts for other adult fantasies. While I agree with Matt that they tend to be longer, see if there are other shorter ones in adult fantasy. I don't read that so don't know. But you might find some shorter ones. Personally, I'd like some shorter ones. It's one of the reasons I don't read adult fantasy. They're too long for how many books I have to read.

Good luck with this.

Weaver said...

I agree with Matt's suggestions, though I would add that in that last paragraph's vagueness the reference to her soul being in danger is just left hanging out there. I'm guessing it's using this rune magic that's the cause but there could be other things (like becoming a courtesan or getting involved with the love interest, etc.) that could do that. Makes me wonder what her real choice is. Death or her soul.

Liza said...

I agree with other comments, but want to say that I love the first sentence. It sucked me right in, and the strength of it kept me going even when things got a little vague.

Sarah said...

I found the first paragraph a bit awkward, especially that first sentence. I think that if you have a more straightforward presentation of the inciting incident, you'll be better off, because you won't leave an agent/editor pausing and rereading right off the bat. The following paragraphs are clearer, though if it's "romantic fantasy", you might want to mention the role the romantic interest plays. If it's Kaige, which it seems to be, I think you need to indicate more than a single, passing mention of him.

All in all, I think this is a query with promise if you follow Matt's advice and flesh it out with some specificity in the last half. In addition, I have to echo others' concerns about the length. I believe 55k is the low threshold to be considered a novel, and fantasy novels are always longer, including in YA. This word count is immediately going to raise concerns about lack of world building and detail, so if your query also lacks world building and detail (at an appropriate scale for a query), it's going to reinforce that concern. But again, if you revise with an eye for that, this has the potential to really draw in a reader! Best of luck!

Yvonne Osborne said...

I think you did a great job of critiquing this query. I, too, was bothered by the main character's name and wondered if the word count wasn't on the low side. So, Summer, you are have room to expand this fictional world, add depth and intrique to circumstance and character. The patriarchal society that hangs women who commit crimes (yes add that)made me instantly think of The Handmaid's Tale. And that ain't bad!!!Good luck! Glad to see you're getting there.

Summer Ross said...

Stopping in to say- great advice everyone! I really appreciate all the feedback. And even though it's been a while since you have done a query crit- I find it all very helpful.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

I actually think the first paragraph works well.

You might, however, think about rearranging it a bit. That first line is a keeper. Like Matthew said, it's specific, evocative, and gives the reader a taste of your voice. The only thing I'd change is to add her age. " woman in common: twenty-two year-old Ebony Graves." That way you can simplify the last two sentences. Something like, "In a brutal society where women accused of crimes are hanged first and questioned later, no one cares that she killed her father to escape another vicious beating."

I agree that the last paragraph needs some specifics. It's a fine line. You don't want to overload the query with specifics, but a taste is good. Something that lets the agent know you have a plan for the middle of your book.

As for the word count...I'm kind of on the fence. I see what the others are saying, and it could be an issue. I recently read an agent's post about word counts under 80k for adult being an automatic rejection. That's not to say, however, that you should pad the book to make 80k words. Sometimes a story can be short. I remember a couple of fantasy novels in the 80s that were about 60k words.

That said, the thing people love about fantasy novels is their scope. So maybe take a peek at some of your subplots and see if any could be developed. You say this has series potential...make sure you're not holding anything back for the next book. A friend asked once whether she should write a scene or save it for book 2. I told her never to save anything for the second book, because there might not be one. And if there is, you'll figure that out when you get there.

Good luck!

Elise Fallson said...

I always learn something when I read these critiques, so thank you Matthew and Summer for letting us read your work. (:

I think you did a good job on this query and the story sounds intriguing, but I do agree it needs to get a little more specific as Matthew pointed out. And with a little more tweaking, it's going to be great!

Good job you guys!

Dawn Ius said...

Great feedback, Matt and good advice about the Em-dash. I overuse them in my writing, I think :-)

The word count did concern me as well, especially since THAT genre has a reputation for being longer, but your readers offered some great suggestions.

Doesn't look like the rust was permanent.

Nicole Zoltack said...

Everyone gave such great feedback already I have nothing to add!

Maurice Mitchell said...

That is short for a novel, but the rest is solid. Well done. BTW
Join us for Star Wars March Madness!

SC Author said...

I agree, I think the word count is a problem (isn't it always?). I like the first paragraph though! Sounds like a great story. You are like one of the query kings in the Blogosphere, so if anyone wants to know if your query will get requests, I'm running a contest on my blog :)

Jay Noel said...

Even with the colon, that first sentence just reads very awkwardly. I read it a couple times over. Don't want to give a publisher a stumbling block right out of the gate.

That last paragraph is pretty vague. We love specifics!

Although it's not about the query itself, I was concerned about that 53,000 word count. Your protagonist is 22 yrs old, but the book might still get tossed in the YA category anyway (New Adult is still a little too NEW, and the word count is a bit low even for that).

I'd like to learn more about this rune magic stuff! The story itself sounds very compelling.

Patchi said...

I really liked the opening. I thought it flowed well into the second paragraph. I agree that the third paragraph fell short. Maybe mention when she starts questioning Lady Charmaine's demands. Does her magic awaken before or after she starts competing? Does Kaige have anything to do with her second thoughts? Little details will go a long way.

I think this query is almost there.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Wow. I am only commenting to be polite because quite frankly, you got it all covered.

mshatch said...

I concur on the name, especially as I had a pair of ebony greaves in a game I used to play (actually had the whole ebony armor set...). And yes, 53,000 is much too short for an adult fantasy but like Matt said it could be published as a novella. Lastly, I completely agree with Matt's suggestion for more about Ebony. It doesn't have to be a lot, but something that tells us more about her character. Is she being defiant when she seeks sanctuary? Is she running? Sneaking?

Great job as always, Matt.

Nancy Thompson said...

You still have the touch, Matthew! Great critique!

Unknown said...

"A rune magic" are their different types of rune magic in the world, or should this read "rune magic"?

I don't really understand how Lady Charmaine gets the townspeople who want to hang her to agree to let her go through this test to avoid it. Can any accused murderer do this? And how to they get away with hanging women left and right anyway, do the other women have eight kids each?

I don't know that I'd include the BA, since pretty much everyone and their mom has an English degree.

It sounds like an interesting premise. I agree that this is short. Even if it's urban fantasy (the shortest fantasy), the minimum length tends to be 60k. If it's urban, mention it and add 7k words. Have you fully developed your characters, described the setting, explored side plots, etc? I'm a put-inner, too. I feel your pain.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Skyrim reference! Holy moly nerd alert!

I just took an arrow to the knee.

Did you hear what Pope John Paul II said to Pope Benedict? Answer: "I used to be like you until I took a silver hammer to the head."

Steve MC said...

I thought it was well done, with just a few quibbles, which Matt covered well.

My only problem was how at the start I couldn’t picture the time it takes place in. I wasn’t sure if it was Puritan colonists or dystopian future, and didn’t even think fantasy until I got to “rune.”

Other than that, the story’s laid out well, the stakes are clear, and the writing is good.

Summer Ross said...

Thanks everyone! I'm frantically scribbling notes. I appreciate all the feedback!

Margo Berendsen said...

Love "the handsome stranger lurking throughout the manor." (since I read an earlier version of this query without this tempting little addition). I need to visit this blog more often for the great query crits, the comments, and all the other fun posts!